The Still Unfinished Synod

COMMENTARY: Unraveling the many unanswered questions on the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.

(photo: CNA file photo)

It’s occasionally said of Washington politics that the appearance is the reality. Some affirm this with glee, some in sorrow. But it’s a basic fact of life about actions carried out mostly in the eye of the modern media. In many ways, the adage also seems to apply to the synod on the family that just ended.

Many believe the images created — by the media, by certain prominent bishops, by nonprofits seeing fundraising opportunities, by the hopes and fears of people deeply worried about Church teaching on marriage and family.

That’s understandable. All of us want somehow to make this troubling reality comprehensible. But it’s worth maintaining a certain skepticism about all such seemingly definitive explanations — at least for the moment.

A Church historian, an old friend whose work I greatly admire, for example, wrote an article saying that the drafting committee charged with revising the working document ignored the 1,300 or so modi (modifications) suggested by the bishops in various language groups and stuck to the old line from 2014. This is utterly false. Strangely so, since it would have been quite easy to check with the many orthodox bishops or their staffs. Were it true, we would have seen a huge uproar and perhaps a walkout by the bishops.

The same person claims the bishops were “surprised” at the last minute that they would only receive the final draft in Italian, which many of them don’t know. This, too, is incorrect: Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican Press spokesman, was asked about this very point multiple times during the third week and explained publicly that the text would be available only in Italian, but translators would be provided for bishops who needed help. One may think this was manipulation, maybe even a large manipulation, since the Vatican is quite able to produce multiple language texts when it wants to. But there was no surprise here — more dismay.

This whole storyline has gone out and been repeated in various outlets as fact. 

The will to misunderstand even involves single words. I pointed out in the middle of the synod that “synod” does not mean a “walking together,” as the Holy Father has repeatedly said. It’s perfectly fine for him to give synodality this new meaning, of course, but correspondents from various countries where our reports at The Catholic Thing are translated have tried to instruct me that synodia means walking together, and so I’m in the wrong. It does no good to say to them, well, yes, but synodos (meeting) and synodia (walking together) are different words in Greek, a small matter perhaps, but the truth is the truth.

So, between those who are skeptical of everything that happened and those who would defend every detail of everything the Pope did, it’s no wonder that the larger questions appear very much up in the air. But as a way to cut through this welter of confusion, and the claims and counterclaims, I’d recommend sticking close to the final text as we have it. As after Vatican II, you will be accused of betraying the “spirit” of the event by citing its actual words, but how else can we know what the synod fathers and the Holy Father intended? Everything else is just someone making up what he thinks the synod did and meant.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, for example, can claim until the Rhine freezes over that his original proposal is in that text. It’s not. You can see for yourself. Look at Paragraphs 85 and 86, the most controversial ones and the ones most voted against by the bishops. The compromise texts walk right up to the edge of his proposal but do not fall over into it.

Indeed, those passages affirm that John Paul II offers the “comprehensive criterion” for how to deal with the divorced and remarried. Even the mention of using the “internal forum” to help people work through their situations speaks of identifying ways that people can advance and grow in their unity with the Church. In other words, change their lives.

The curious thing about efforts to stick first to the facts is that almost no one wants to hear them. The progressives interested in changing Church teaching (while repeatedly saying they are not doing so) are not about to let the truth slow them down.

Archbishop Charles Chaput got in the best line about this early in the synod: It’s like a man telling his wife repeatedly that he would never cheat on her — when the subject had never been brought up. After the third or fourth time, the wife would be justified in wondering whether something was going on.

But the same has often been true of faithful Catholics, justifiably worried about the static that emanated from the synod. We had Panamanian Cardinal Jose Luiz Lacunza suggest that the Church go back to Moses (implication: Abandon Christ’s teaching and 2,000 years of Church history) on divorce. And Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich made strong claims in a personal press conference that people’s consciences had to be respected, and they had to be treated “like adults.” (As if they haven’t been earlier. He later claimed his words had been misunderstood.)

These and dozens of other details might give a conscientious Catholic the sense that the whole synod was wall-to-wall crazy. The fact is, episodes like these drew the most press attention, while saner conversations about marriage and family went ignored. And the final text is tolerable: Strong bishops like Cardinal George Pell and Archbishop Chaput have said that, and if we can’t believe them, we are approaching the point where we cannot believe anyone in the hierarchy.

A personal confession: I myself was particularly disturbed by the ways that several bishops, mostly from Northern Europe — Germany in particular — spoke of Christian marriage as an “ideal,” as if the normal expectation for married couples over much of Christian history was asking for more than human nature can bear. I don’t know that such an interpretation had ever been advanced in the 20 centuries prior.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx took one step further: He spoke about the desire of a man and woman to marry and spend a whole life together in mutual unity and fidelity as a “dream.” He meant this in a positive sense — I think. But again, when ordinary Christian marriage is spoken of as a “dream,” it won’t be long before you realize that dreams usually come into conflict with reality.

The cardinal dug an even deeper hole: He said, people ask us, “Where will you be, how will you treat us if the dream ‘fails’?” As merely a factual matter (I’m starting to feel like just-the-facts-ma’am Sgt. Joe Friday), it’s hard to believe any couple has ever asked that. It’s the kind of rhetoric you use to make an argument more plausible — not very plausible, in this instance.

Despite the relative sanity of the final report, the media and many Catholics believe that Pope Francis himself supports the Kasperite position and that he will say so in his post-synodal exhortation — and explicitly allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. Perhaps so. But a high-ranking cardinal, deeply involved in the synod, says the Pope has personally told him on three separate occasions that he does not support Cardinal Kasper.

Why, then, did he invite Cardinal Kasper to address the bishops in February 2014 and not put a stop to the almost two years of uncertainty and upset in the Church? That’s just one of the many unanswered questions about the synod on the family — and one to which we may or may not ever have an answer.

Robert Royal, Ph.D., is the founder and president

of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington

and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing website.